Book Notes: Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula

Classics are a bugger to write about. One can either be refractorily contrarian or fawn and fall in line with the rest of the admiring hordes. That Dracula is accorded ‘classic’ status in the/a ‘canon’ is attested by its inclusion in Penguin’s project of 2012, the issuing of a hundred ‘of the best novels in the English language’. Late last year they were kind enough to send me a few of the Penguin English Library which I comprehensively failed to read. At all. (Actually, I did write about the PEL edition of Dubliners, but that wasn’t part of this batch, so I’m not letting myself off that easily). I’m now aiming to remedy that failure, beginning with Dracula. Now, there is a third way of approaching a classic, of course, which is to use one’s canonical text as the jumping off point for some ill-assorted and likely irrelevant reflections. You might wish I’d left it on the shelf.

Although by no means the first vampire novel, Dracula is the oft ill-attributed locus classicus of all that followed in 20th Century film and literature. The short essay that follows the main text (which is a nice feature of PEL editions) by John Sutherland does a good job of sorting the vampires of Stoker from later accretions. It was only with nosferatu, for example, that the sunlight-solubility of vampires was introduced. It might also come as a surprise to any unfortunate who has seen Van Helsing to learn that the eponymous professor is, in Stoker, a slightly-older-than-middle-aged Dutch professor of curious speech patterns. I’m not really going to talk about the plot, I’m afraid. If you want a summary, click here with all possible dispatch and enjoy Wikipedia.

Two elements struck me most about Dracula: its intense modernity and the possibility of writing an epistolary novel with some claim to realism in methodology if not in subject matter. These two go hand-in-hand to some extent. The propagation of information by the central characters is done not only by the time-honoured journal, diary, and letter, but by telegram, phonograph, type-writer, and camera. Novels which are necessarily written in recollection can suffer from an odd pacing, but Dracula, for all that it is often dense to modern eyes, does not suffer from this because it makes use of what were, in 1897, cutting edge developments. The arrival of a telegram bearing some key piece of information has something of the email or text about it, for all that they differ in so many other ways. What is so interesting about Stoker’s style is that he mixes the 18th and 19th Century staple of the epistolary novel with the turn of the century developments in communication as well as introducing modern weaponry (Winchester rifles), transport, and science which forms a marked contrast with the old world preferences of the Count. It’s a more refreshing mix than any found in Blade.

So what of the epistolary novel in the early 21st Century? It’s fair to say that few people write letters with any regularity. Yet it isn’t simply the medium of expression that has altered, we also write with greater brevity in most exchanges, be they by email, Facebook, instant messenger, Twitter, text message, or anything else. Technology has undoubtedly altered our language and the writer who wishes to write in this mode has to be aware of that. I know that there are books around which do make use of emails, tweets, messages, and so on; but I haven’t really read any, and I wonder if the necessary fragmentation which I feel would result from such approach would be the kind we occasionally laud for being so refreshing in the face of conservative narrative.

So, somewhat ironically, I asked Twitter. Suggestions included: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, several by Tao Lin, Eleven by David Llewellyn, The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, and Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave. I’ve read none of these, but several have made it on to my wish list. (Thanks to everyone who replied). There are, of course, several stories written either in a single tweet or composed of tweets strung together, but these are not, for the most part, messages as messages, but as shorter forms of composition. That is, people are writing stories with tweets, rather than stories of tweets. (See, for example, Jennifer Egan’s Black Box).

What is interesting is whether we adopt different voices for different platforms. Do I write differently on Twitter than I do on Facebook? I think I post pictures of cats equally. I certainly write differently when blogging about art or books than when I write philosophy, but it seems a different kind of difference from that which different platforms might engender: in one my subject matter drives my style, but in the other the constraint is of the nature of the platform and social convention surrounding its use. At the very least, I tend not to think in hashtags most of the time.

I think it could be interesting to try and write a novel that moves amongst all of these different media. That’s what Stoker did and he’s stood the test of time. One worry might be the transience of social media and the various forms of communication we use at the moment. I’m unlikely to try and write anything involving Myspace, for example; but should I involve Reddit? Does the furniture I post for sale on Gumtree drive my narrative forward? And so on. Of course, we don’t use telegrams and more and that hasn’t harmed Dracula at all. Which means, I suppose, that whatever style one adopts, one has to write a good novel at the same time. Which, by the way, Stoker seems to have done.

 

Recent Reading: Bakker, Souza Leão, Salter, Byers, Roth, Bennett, Antrim, Crace, Suddain, Ziervogel

What with one thing and another I haven’t been able to write about as many of the books I’ve been reading as I would have liked: so, by way of a corrective, I thought I’d talk about a few of the books I’ve enjoyed and, occasionally, been slightly baffled by over the last few months – with no pretence of adherence to chronological order, I should add. The full list of this year’s reading is to be found by clicking on ‘Books Read 2013’ somewhere above here.

detour-ukOne of my resolutions for this year was to read more American and translated fiction. Much to my surprise this actually seems to have gone fairly well. Indeed, one of my favourite novels this year is Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few months ago and makes more references to Escape to the Country than one might have expected. So quiet and full of life, my overriding impression of The Detour was of a vibrating air surrounding the Dutch woman mysteriously arrived in Wales, of a thickness to the medium which was not cloying, for the language is transparency itself, but somehow, like water, able to propagate feeling and mystery all the more effectively for its density.

Whereas The Detour vibrated due to some uneasy tension, All Dogs are Blue, theALL-DOGS-ARE-BLUE_FRONT-cmyk-300x456 latest translation from And Other Stories, derives its energy from a riotous and rebellious challenge to narrative and the mental institutions of Brazil. In her introduction, Deborah Levy calls Rodrigo De Souza Leão’s work ‘a comic modernist novel about being messed up – and then being messed up even more by numbing doses of pharmaceuticals.’ The sheer momentum generated by Souza Leão powers one through the book. A first reading just has to take in the manifold ramifying threads of a stream of consciousness the balance of which is as undermined by the society in which it finds itself as much as it is by any illness or ensuing medication to which it is subject. ‘I swallowed a chip yesterday. It forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.’ Quite an opening paragraph.

salterSpeaking of opening paragraphs, James Salter is known for them, and his most famous is that which begins Light Years.

We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

Which, in its current of refracted nostalgia, fractured distances, and coldly receding life, captures the intuition of the entire novel. A work of dissolution and awing concision of character, not to mention the scattering of stunning paragraphs, Light Years is remarkable. Salter likes water: the opening sentence of his latest novel All That Is runs: All night in darkness the water sped past. Despite this – and some Twitter murmurings about a thirsty horse – I haven’t quite got around to reading All That Is yet. I have a habit of eagerly awaiting novels and then suddenly finding myself unable to pick them up.

Glorying in a different kind of linguistic bravado one finds Sam Byer’s Idiopathy, Idiopathydescribed as ‘A novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle’. Each of Byers’ three central characters is mired in a different kind of self-involvement and self-pity, symbolised by those ailing cattle standing ‘at the edges of fields staring blank and unblinking into the middle distance, starving and dehydrating to death.’ The prose matches and vindicates the rationale. Byers’ sentences twist and turn, moving back and forth, in and out, becoming increasing self-involved before, rather unlike the thoughts of his subjects, resolving beautifully. Likewise, each sentence forms part of a paragraph whose guiding thought is clear, but whose meandering yet controlled course mirrors both the contours of introspection and the ‘self-caused cause’ that is its impetus. Byers consistently finds the humour that underlies the nonsense we manage to twist our thoughts and lives in to.

Gabriel-Roth-The-Unknowns-186x300Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns also addresses the challenges of interpersonal communication and love. (No cattle). Through the nice premise of an expert in user interfaces who is nonetheless bad with people until he develops a theoretical framework with which to approach them, Roth questions the relationship between people and the facts about them, between knowing someone and understanding them. The Unknowns reminded me of the debates in the philosophy of mind which ask how it is that we predict or understand the behaviour and thought of others given the inaccessibility of their mental lives. This is often called ‘folk psychology’. One view, ‘Theory-theory’, holds that we understand the behaviour and thoughts of others (‘mindreading’) by accessing a theory of human behaviour we all hold in our minds: we reason somehow about others and come to conclusions about their lives. Roth’s novel is rather snappier and an awful lot funnier than the texts one finds in the philosophy of mind, but it covers the same ground and highlights that same gulf in knowledge and understanding which we have to find some way to bridge if we are ever to relate to anybody.

The development of knowledge and understanding that attends immersion inUncommon-Reader-Alan-Bennett literature is the satirical substance of the most straightforwardly joyous book I’ve read recently: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. A small book which manages to contain more insight about the value of reading and the fear it engenders in others. One of my favourite passages finds the increasingly literate Queen reciting Larkin’s The Trees during what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill planting. (This is one of my favourite poems, which helps). Everyone should read Bennett’s very short, but lovely book.

‘See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly white…’ To electreturn to the Americas, Donald Antrim’s reissued Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World was one of the more disconcerting novels I’ve read this year, which is probably why I didn’t review it at the time. I was baffled. I had lots of words I could use: surreal, macabre, fantastical, satirical, bloody odd, and so on; but I couldn’t make them cohere into the substance of a review. And perhaps this is the point. Antrim’s novel defies the kind of approach I often take to reviewing. It’s defiantly violent and refuses to allow that violence to signify in the way that literary novels so often do; its language is so at odds with its subject which is magnified and twisted as a result; its amorality challenges the narrative one wants to place on it. It’s not easy.

I might also have been quite tired when I read it.

This might also be true of Jim Crace’s Booker longlisted Harvest, but given my lack of response to his earlier Quarantine, I think I may simply have a Crace blind spot. harvestCrace is one of those whose technical ability, whose sentence-making, I recognise in an abstract way, but whose writing simply fails to move me. ‘This land has always been much older than ourselves’. Its insistently measured pace, its careful probing of a thought, a place, a person, a name, or possibility enlarges the space of Crace’s prose, makes its spaces rich and sacred, but in the same way renders it detached, dreamlike, everywhere and nowhere: so richly detailed, so freely of the earthy and sky, yet none that we may find.

To continue in the vein of books about which I am ambivalent, Matt Suddain’s enormous Theatre of the Gods challenges merely by its length. This tale blacklistpublishing_covers_theatre_of_the_godsof transuniversal exploration is as big and brash and ambitious as any science fiction/fantasy one might name. It’s full of wit and intelligence and might be somewhat too aware of the fact. In short, it might be shorter. The sprawling character of the narrative as we follow M. Francisco Fabrigas (explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist) across the universes as he battles, amongst others, the Pope of the universe, myriad assassins, and the flora of one very dangerous moon, is part of the essential character of the work. However, certain passages descend into something of a display, which might, of course, be evidence of the supposed narrator of Fabrigas’ tale. If you feel like taking on a big book with big ideas and definite talent behind it, then Theatre of the Gods is worth considering.

Finally, and in contrast, I read Magda by Meike Ziervogel, which follows Magda Goebbels from her abusive childhood to Hitler’s bunker beneath Berlin.  Ziervogel’s9781907773402frcvr.indd writing is at its most remarkable when probing the spiritual starvation Magda feels and her satiation in the person and project of her Fuhrer: ‘This man believes in meaning, this man delivers meaning, this man is meaning. He is mind without body and Magda is inspired; the spirit has entered her, the Holy Spirit has come to her and taken her, planting a seed in her as he did with the Virgin Mary.’ One of the challenges of writing about historical figures is to resist the inevitability of their fate; it is even more challenging when those figures have such a hand in that determination. Ziervogel’s painful portrayal of Magda and the fear and confusion of her children as the steel doors close on them is chillingly good. The interpenetration of prostration before the cross, before an abuser, before National Socialism; of bodily and national resurrection, of abuse and purity and the manner in which the victim comes to feel unclean and seek forgiveness; of the bitter irony of one people believing itself chosen and thus seeking to exterminate another: all is brought to bear in Magda.

And that’s some of the books I’ve read recently. One book I’ve not written about is Javier Marías’ The Man of Feeling. I’m going to need a while to get my head around that one. It’s brilliant, but I think I need to reread it at least once before I can say much about it. The same goes for Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which is remarkable and full of wisdom and humanity. My next post should be a few thoughts on Dracula.  

Titles with a star were review copies.

  •  *Harvest (Picador)
  • The Uncommon Reader (Faber/Profile)
  • The Detour (Vintage)
  • Light Years (Harvill Press)
  • *Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (Granta)
  • *Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • All Dogs are Blue (And Other Stories)
  • *Magda (Salt)
  • *The Unknowns (Picador/Waywiser Press)
  • *Theatre of the Gods (Jonathan Cape)

Paperback review: ROOK by Jane Rusbridge

Rook-paperback-final

Exactly a year after I first reviewed ROOK it has come out in paperback, so I’m reposting my original piece on a book that I really enjoyed.

Jane Rusbridge’s ROOK is a wonderfully written and atmospheric novel rooted in the landscape and history of the village of Bosham and its surroundings on the Sussex coast. The expressive and emotional power of natural, temporal, musical, interpersonal, and mental rhythms and relations permeate Rusbridge’s narrative and prose. Nora is an ex-concert cellist whose return to her family home in Bosham is precipitated by a crisis which haunts the novel. She continues to teach and music rises in her mind in moments of stress in a manner reminiscent of Septimus Harding in The Warden. Nora’s increasingly frail, self-absorbed and time-dazed mother Ada seems to haunt and hate the house, at one point taking a croquet mallet to the French windows. The widow of an archaeologist buried alive whilst excavating, Ada slips in and out of an alternately Arcadian and regretted past, her confusion communicated in the liquid language which pervades ROOK, ‘Ada’s mind swam…creek water silted in the nooks and crannies of her mind and sometimes the sense of what she wanted to say or even think had washed away or sunk.’

The eponymous Rook, his name quite literal, is rescued as a baby by Nora from the attention of callous youths, and she nurtures him into a strapping adult. His presence emphasises the interpenetration of nature and the human sphere, as does the helplessness of the villagers in the face of that most rhythmic of phenomena: the tide. Nora’s maternal attitude to Rook also contrasts with the diminished relationship she has with Ada: ‘Rook’s eyes are closed. ‘Go to sleep, little one.’’ Nora’s delight when he finally caws and then flies is as deep as that one takes in the first words and steps of a child. Nora, of course, is lacking a parent:

Nora would like to ask her father if what drew him to archaeology was his preoccupation with time, and whether it is from him that she inherited her own strong and natural sense of rhythm, her body’s instinctive feel for time. She’d like to talk to him about the way the passing of time changes what we once believed to be truth or fact into something previously unknown.

The excavation of buried secrets, of a multi-layered and shifting past is a major theme of ROOK. Bosham’s church and the occupants of certain graves attract Jonny: a handsome documentary maker who arrives to research a programme about King Cnut and his illegitimate daughter, but who detects the possibility of a greater historical – and romantic – coup. This leads to fierce arguments over Bosham’s history, the villagers’ obligations to the past and present, and, centrally, the substance of history itself. The reaction of the village to Jonny is nicely captured by ROOK’s violent dislike for him. Jonny and Nora’s desire to know, to pin down some historical truth is at odds with the fluidity, literal and metaphorical, of the past and its muddy elements. Rusbridge’s allegiance to the allure of historical indeterminacy comes out strongly. A.L. Rowse’s oft-quoted sentiment seems apt, ‘History is a great deal closer to poetry than is generally realised: in truth, I think, it is in essence the same.’ Harry, a symbol of the land and authenticity throughout, puts it this way, ‘My point –’ Harry looks up at the ceiling, rubs his chin and sighs, ‘is the mystery. Way too big a loss, the mystery.’

A rhythm will take away, will, like the tide recede as well as return, and loss is a feature of ROOK. Rook has lost something for all that he gains in Nora’s care, Nora and her mother each have their own losses to face or retreat from, and the long-dead Edyth Swan-Neck’s loss is apparent from the opening pages set in the aftermath of a certain well-known battle. Her presence in Bosham is symbolised by the swans which glide through the water and across the borders of the Bayeux tapestry. Writing in the continuous present Rusbridge emphasises both the sheer immediacy of experience and the penetration of memory and the distant past. At times she approaches the visionary as characters slip into the past mid-thought, mid-action, without it being obvious where the divide came. Likewise certain thoughts take the shape of natural and material phenomena and things, as with Ada’s shifting water-way of a mind.

Rusbridge’s poetic phrasing and symbolic complexity renders the writing incantatory and impressionistic. ‘Slivers of sunlight bounce on ripples blown sideways by the breeze.’ Water takes on a significance reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s Water; that de-churched spirituality which bespeaks a connection with land and history is also echoed – perhaps ironically – in Larkin’s Church Going.

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

Language is vitally important in ROOK as an orientating and connecting tool. Certain words connect us to the quality of a historical awareness. Whilst reading one of her husband’s books Ada savours the ‘Anglo-Saxon words for mud: cledgysleechslommocky. She mouths the sl and bl of them, shaping her tongue and lips around their texture. Stabble means to walk thick mud into the house. She likes the squelch and spread of the word, its peaks and smears.’ Such earthy thickening generates a wonderful atmosphere and occupation of landscape and culture, especially notable in the Saxon elements of the novel. ‘The year was dying: wind and wet leaves, a mist rolling in from the swan-rād.’ And yet, as Rusbridge makes clear, the mystery remains. She has Nora tell Jonny, ‘Motive tells us so much more about character than actions.’ But, of course, it is motive that is so often lost to history, thus generating that tension between the desire to know and its frustration by time’s passing. The connection is in the continuity of landscape, sea, birth, maturation, death: all of which underpin the distinctly jumbled affairs of the inhabitants of Bosham.

ROOK’s climax is sharply affecting and reaches deep into the core of the earth and the human life that persists on and then under it. I was very moved by it despite, or perhaps because of, the premonitions and parallels throughout the book. As a thematic and dramatic convergence it is very powerful and well-controlled. I loved the atmosphere and language of ROOK and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Quick review: Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard

hunters cover

There is a certain kind of novel which makes one think to oneself ‘Oh, you mentioned that before, but in a different context: how clever.’ And, of course, one’s rather pleased to have noticed it, and words like ‘interwoven’ and ‘controlled’ spring to mind. Whether this says rather more about me than it does about Daisy Hildyard’s debut Hunters in the Snow, I’m not sure. The other thought that tends to run alongside this response is ‘Goodness, haven’t they jotted down a lot of quotations that would look great in a novel.’ Again, this might just be me: I definitely have a tendency to highlight passages that would make great epigraphs. Hildyard addresses this issue rather neatly by prefacing the novel with both an Asterix cartoon and some Laurence Sterne.

My grandfather’s name was Thomas James Thompson, but he was known to everyone as Jimmy, and we still called the room in the porch Jimmy’s study, despite the fact that a year had passed since his death.

The heart of Hunters in the Snow is the nature of recollection and the shaping of a narrative by the choices of inclusion and omission made by any contemporary observer or supposedly abstracted historian. As she clears out his study, Jimmy’s granddaughter looks through the old historian’s notes and drafts assembled for his final histories: Edward IV, Peter the Great, former slave Olaudah Equiano, Herbert Kitchener. These narratives provide the framework for the nameless granddaughter’s reflections and memories of Jimmy and his many lectures on history and historiography. As one might expect in a novel about the nature of narrative, analysis, and the assembly of sources, the writing, which is always measured and precise, twists in and around itself, ending rather fittingly with portraiture, the loss of detachment, and the relationship between foreground and background in Virginia Woolf.

History is not like fiction, in which someone has to hang on every knotted noose.

In one sense, Hildyard makes more manifest the submerged structure of a Sebald piece as microscopy, archaeology, memoir, place, and personal narrative flow into one another across the histories. This might mean that the artifice hanging behind, say, The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz, is more apparent in Hunters in the Snow than it might be; but I don’t think this becomes a problem, because Hildyard’s aims are different from Sebald’s, despite the martialling of historical moments, of convergence and divergence in time that they share. Sebald’s is an interior journey magnified and structured by historical, literary, and geographical experience, whereas Hildyard’s narrator looks to mirror her grandfather’s advice on sifting the accounts and omissions of sources to find the truth beneath in her bid to understand: she turns the historian’s eye onto the historian, but in doing so reveals much about herself by omitting her name, her childhood in the village beyond Jimmy’s farm, her life.

In the same year the Oxford English Dictionary credits the translation of the term ‘autobiography’, meaning self/life/writing, into English from Greek. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, then, must have been one of the very first of these personal histories. Before that time, writers could only deal in memoirs, which came from the inside of their minds; or accounts, which kept outside of them. They had no particular words for recording themselves, as historians do, over time.

Hildyard’s novel is at its most interesting when reflecting on the way in which we can come to know far more about a period than its inhabitants or their immediate descendants, whether that be by scientific analysis or the dynamics which only emerge when one can view decades at a glance. And yet, the manner in which the observer’s eye is guided by the mind is repeatedly emphasised by both the subjects of Jimmy’s histories and the practice of the historian who chose them. He writes of the pioneering microscopist Leeuwenhoek’ whose otherwise outstanding observations are complicated by his certainty that he can see in a single sperm a tiny human waiting to grow.

Jimmy reiterated, three-quarters of a century later, his historiographical credo: ‘A feeling for and a joy in the particular in and by itself is necessary for the historian, as one takes joy in flowers without thinking to which of Linne’s classes or of Oken’s families they belong.’

‘Is that you, or is that a quote?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he said uncharacteristically. ‘It might be me, or it might be von Ranke. But the point is this: the particular always stands for the universal.’

Whether that concluding thought is quite true or whether it follows from von Ranke’s joy in the particular is an interesting question; and it is one which Jimmy seems, in his resistance to the validity of personal experience or the particularity of present experience, to hold in tension with his impulse for abstraction. He always removes himself from the present moment into history; he allows his farm to decay, hates conservation, because in that decay will the passage of time, of history, be made manifest.

 History, said Jimmy, is quite different from what happened.

History is an assemblage, a collage of found objects glued together to create something of some meaning and, we hope, something of value. ‘Leeuwenhoek was the first person to see the sperm cell, but he changed it when he looked at it.’ When Picasso produced the first collages proper in 1912 he knew precisely what he was doing in this assembly. He was taking real things and, in a manner, preserving them by creating something neither wholly new nor old. Or so I’ve chosen to write.

Hunters in the Snow is a very assured assemblage held together by the questions of narrative, integration, and preservation which run through it. In language whose precision mirrors the call to the particular whilst holding the universal in mind, Hildyard navigates the twin pitfalls of overgeneralisation and wallowing in the historical very neatly. The external and internal, the observer and the observed, the writer and the written constantly question one another as the snow melts around Jimmy’s frigid study and his granddaughter’s interrogation. In Hildyard’s mingling of the historical and fictional she aptly mirrors the historical method she wants to analyse. The snowy fields of the title through which the hunters move are the pages waiting to be written, hiding life and decay beneath the slush, but from which they were never really separate in the first place.

Hunters in the Snow is out now from Jonathan Cape.

My thanks to Jonathan Cape for this review copy.

‘the thirst for sensation’ The Dinner – Herman Koch

Translated by Sam Garrett

the dinner side banner

In Room 25 of The National Gallery is a painting by Pieter de Hooch, an artist who specialised in scenes of domesticity in the heart of the Dutch Golden Age.  The Courtyard of a House in Delft (1658) presents a solid everyday world of cleanliness, transparency, upright citizenry, and carefully marshalled beatific children; a world of order and harmonyPieter_de_Hooch_004 founded on firm moral ground. This is, as Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, ‘a place where stillness and security are charged with ethical value…De Hooch’s courtyard is the setting for a gentle conflict between the virtues of domesticity and the forces ranged against them.’ This is the prosperous Dutch’s self-conception reflected for their moralising satisfaction and patronage. This is, they think, a form of happiness: clean, Calvinist, and destined for Heaven. Graham-Dixon goes on, ‘The safe enclosure of the home becomes an image of the safe enclosure of the state…To look out is to see, not difference, but sameness;…an entire city of safe havens, an urban organism made up of such healthy, single cells as the one he has happened to paint. Art becomes a form of civic self-assurance.’ It also becomes rather bland.

the little streetJohannes Vermeer’s The Little Street was finished in the same year, in the same historical moment as The Courtyard of a House in Delft and resembles it in subject, but whereas De Hooch’s work encapsulates Holland’s vision of itself in both the 17th and 21st Centuries, Vermeer’s interrogates the façade and allows darkness and indeterminacy to remain in both home and the individual. Now we are on the outside looking in. At a time of unparalleled prosperity, Vermeer just might be wondering what lies beneath the mercantile frontage, beneath the blurred faces of his retiring subjects. Graham-Dixon calls this ‘the way in which the world withholds itself from the artist-as-observer, the way in which it retains its mystery.’ We might also see those sheer frontages as dykes holding back that darkness as the pumps and levees resist the North Sea and ensure Holland’s feet are kept dry.

All I want to talk about here are the things I heard and saw during our little get-together at the restaurant.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner can be understood as a challenge to the de Hoochian picture of Holland, happiness, and human nature; and as an attempt to move past Vermeer’s allusions to darkness into those shadows themselves. It goes without saying that Paul Lohman wants to talk about far more than what he heard and saw on one evening in an expensive Amsterdam restaurant. He is far from being a neutral narrator and he wants us to understand how he, his wife Claire, his sister-in-law Babette, and prominent politician of a brother Serge ended up sitting at this table, talking about the things their children have done and what they are to do about it. Whether Paul is reliable or not is not entirely clear; although I suspect that his honesty is one of the unsettling aspects of the novel. His voice, whilst becoming increasingly violent and disturbing, does satisfy that terrible phrase but laudable characteristic of being compulsively readable. In deceptively simple tones Koch has Paul narrate the evening and its unexpected developments.

‘The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,’ said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinkie. ‘And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.’ 

The Dinner begins as an apparent consideration of a certain brand of conspicuous consumption and artifice. That the novel is anchored by the framework of the meal’s five courses – Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif – seems to support this.Still-Life-by-Willem-Kalf-007 Indeed, Paul rails against the absurd divorce between price and service in top restaurants, against the stage-management, wine-urging manipulation, and his brother’s political smile. We sympathise, even if Paul is more strident than we might be. ‘Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself, he says he things of it as a sport.’ This is far from the moralising pictures of Pieter de Hooch. It recalls, rather, the other side of the Golden Age: the conspicuous consumption of Frans Hals’ Banquet of the officers of the St George Militia Company (1616) and Willem Kalf’s Still Life with the drinking horn of the St Sebastian Archers’ Guild, lobster and glasses (c.1653) Serge Lohman wants to show off, to say ‘Look, I can have this whenever I want, because I can play the game’; or so his brother believes. Slowly the meal becomes an exercise in manoeuvring for advantage amongst the diners, from course choice to strategic toilet breaks. It quickly becomes clear that far more is at stake than simple brotherly conflict or cultural bankruptcy as parents jockey for position and each course ramps up the tension in simmering mix of violence, loyalty, moral indignation, and desire for stimulation.

I was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up: the café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that’s too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air; documentaries about tornados, hurricanes and tsunamis have a soothing effect. Of course it’s terrible, we’ve all be taught to say that we think it’s terrible, but a world without disasters and violence—be it the violence of nature or that of muscle and blood—would be the truly unbearable thing.

The literary interrogation of the dark side of humanity goes at least as far back as Mary Shelley and Robert Louis-Stevenson, whilst its dramatic consideration is thousands of years old. More recently James Smythe’s The Machine, a speculative re-examination of the Frankenstein story – amongst many other things – ask what it is which keeps violence at bay, and what it takes for those barriers to be overtopped: ‘People are capable of anything, he says. It’s inside all of us.’ In many ways The Dinner is akin to Golding’s Lord of the Flies in that Koch uses children as well as adults in order to pose his questions, although it is, in a limited way, more effective because the novel remains rooted in the modern state rather than a desert island. The novel becomes concerned with the nature of moral responsibility and the lengths to which parents should go in order to protect their children from themselves and the codes of the society in which they live.

‘To the outside world they’re suddenly adults, because they did something that we, as adults, consider a crime. But I feel that they’ve responded to it more like children. That’s exactly what I was trying to tell Serge. That we don’t have the right to take away their childhood, simply because, according to our norms, as adults, it’s a crime you should have to pay for for the rest of your life.’

The repressed violence and cold manipulation that infects and bursts out of the characters in The Dinner is chilling. ‘To look out is to see, not difference, but sameness.’ Are the Lohmans an aberration or a microcosm? Is their darkly rationalised happiness won in a way which parallels the self-deception of a nation? De Hooch’s domestic harmony, his network of safe-havens hide something far darker. The Golden Age was built on the proceeds of the slave-trade. It is hard not to see a parallel here with the son Serge and Babette adopted from Burkina Faso. His treatment is troubling and the potentially political or honest intentions of his adoptive parents unresolved. What stands behind Vermeer’s shuttered windows and dark doorways? What is being kept at bay?

Without knowing glances—without winks—there was in fact no secret: that was my reasoning. It might be hard for us to put the events in the cubicle out of our minds, but in the course of time they would start to exist outside us—just they did for other people. But what we did have to forget was the secret. And the best thing was to start forgetting as soon as possible.

Koch shifts the ground beneath the reader as more and more is revealed throughout The Dinner, as the meal runs its course. It is very well done indeed. The sympathies of the reader veer wildly after an initial identification with Paul’s impatience with the paraphernalia of consumption; an identification which becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the face of Koch’s uncompromising writing. The Dinner is nothing if not gripping, even if elements stretch one’s credulity a little. The half-cocked idea that not all victims are innocents and not all criminals are guilty unsettles and shifts throughout as it is put to self-interested use. The tablet suffering a good-natured assault by a questing limb of ivy in de Hooch’s picture runs thus, ‘This is in Saint Jerome’s vale, if you wish to repair to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised.’ The choices Paul and Claire make in order to protect their family might ultimately twist this moralising saying into a darker reflection of itself. Happiness is, after all, its own sensation.

The Dinner is published in paperback by Atlantic.

Cassandra – Christa Wolf (Translated by Jan Van Heurck)

Cassandra

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

The Illiad I.1 (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

‘The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.’

Allegorical novels can be among the very finest and the very worst. Moralizing is a constant temptation and when twinned with a lack of sympathy for one’s fictionalised opposition this results in a Pretty Bad Book. To this extent poor allegorical fiction resembles both hagiography and humpbacked vilification in its intention to beatify, sanitise, caricature, or damn its subject rather than represent or explore human nature and its manifestations in distinct but related historical, geographical, and political contexts. To that extent, to call a Good Book allegorical is at most to identify one aspect of its author’s intentions, because a common humanity must serve as the grounding of almost any novel worthy of the name. The greatest works resonate beyond their particular moment because they do just this; and likewise the greatest allegorical novels use a particular moment to reflect upon another. Sometimes it is the similarity veiled by an apparent difference which is so striking; sometimes it is that so similar a set of people could be so different. These are obviously versions of the same thing. Thus, the greatest allegorical novels find a way to say something truly interesting about both their apparent subject and their (more or less) hidden subject. One or the other won’t do.

All this, the Troy of my childhood, no longer exists except inside my head. I will rebuild it there while I still have time, I will not forget a single stone, a single incidence of light, a single laugh, a single cry. It shall be kept faithfully inside me, however short the time may be. Now I have learned to see what is not, how hard the lesson was.

Christa Woolf’s Cassandra takes as its apparent subject the recollections of the eponymous prophetess and daughter of the Trojan king Priam as she waits to be executed by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra ouside the gates of Mycenae. However, Wolf’s story is definitely not a straightforward recapitulation of Homer, Virgil, or the Epic Cycle. This is most clear when Cassandra speaks of ‘Achilles the brute’. No heroes here: just violence and deceit. In Wolf’s war the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters finds herself in the midst of an economic struggle between Troy and the Greek states falsely dressed as a question of honour and idealism. The priestess watches in horror as her father’s court is slowly infiltrated and increasingly controlled by the bland but insidious Eumelos who wishes only to protect the state against those who would betray it. The enemy seems less those beyond the walls and more the new party of Trojans who subvert Troy in the name its perpetuation. Thus power deceives not only its objects but itself and in doing so hastens its own destruction. Propaganda, censorship, and surveillance: So far, so Cold War.

How many realities were there in Troy besides mine, which I had thought the only one? Who fixed the boundary between the visible and invisible?

This is a question we might ask of Cassandra itself. Where does allegory begin and end? Where is the apparent story and where the hidden? Where the visible and where the invisible? It’s also a question Wolf is asking of the other Trojan War narratives. Why is that tale of gods and armoured men the story? We can also turn the question back: why is Cassandra’s narrative the one we should trust? After all, she doesn’t seem to trust herself.

   Will I split myself in two until the end before the axe splits me, for the sake of consciousness? In order not to writhe with fear, not to bellow like an animal – and who should know better than I how animals bellow when they are sacrificed! Will I, until the end, until that axe – will I still, when my head, my neck, is already – will I—?

Why do I simply refuse to allow myself this relapse into creatureliness? What is holding me back? Who is there left to see me? Do I, the unbeliever, still see myself as the focus of a god’s gazes, as I did when a child, a girl, a priestess? With that never pass?

Wolf’s writing is searching, clawing at the truth, or some truth. Inseparable from its subject and subject-matter, the tumbling consciousness is feverish in its expression as thought and language move toward and away from resolution until the very end. This is a consciousness divided against itself within a state divided against itself. Indeed, division is everywhere: in the dual nature of Apollo, in the gods’ gaze, the torment and the desolation; and in the prophesying of Germany’s future, the future of many times and places, the fall of the USSR, its wall breached. Yet Cassandra is nothing if not resistant to quite so totalising a summation of its aims. Cassandra sweeps back and forth between love and hatred, male and female, madness and sanity, belief and apostasy, the city and the natural, life and death.

Who lives will see. It occurs to me secretly that I am tracking the story of my fear. Or more precisely, the story of its unbridling: more precisely still, of its setting free.

One of the most powerful and interesting aspects of Cassandra is Wolf’s discussion of a beauty which does not exist and which is yet the pretext for war and repression. Once you go far enough, you have to keep going. Time and again the structures of Terror have become their own end. The end is no longer in sight and may have never been possible. We should be careful when mixing biography and criticism – although Wimsatt and Beardsley’s warning against ‘author psychology’ in their ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ is far too strong a prohibition – but it is interesting that Christa Wolf opposed the reunification of Germany despite her implied criticism of the East’s surveillance culture in Cassandra. (She herself was a Stasi informant at one point long before the novel’s composition). This suggests that it is the idea of utopia – socialist or otherwise – and its attendant terrors which Wolf critiques. Beyond a certain point everyone knows it never existed in the first place; and yet they cannot stop themselves. Honour demands that the image remains. In the paradise

we had invented, we were defending everything that we know longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was. Thus out of words, gestures, ceremonies, and silence there arose a second Troy, a ghostly city, were we were supposed to feel at home and live at ease.

This is all only a first-pass reading. Cassandra deserves several readings for the quality of language and thought alone. I think an awful lot passed me by, especially at the beginning as I settled into Cassandra’s habits of speech. Without any dissembling I can say that I have failed to do justice to the aspects of the novel which deal with female experience, with the feminine, the binaries Wolf creates between Greek and Trojan, with Cassandra’s life itself. That’s one set of concerns to pay more attention to when rereading. I’ve been told by several people that Wolf’s later novel Medea is even better than Cassandra, so that’s definitely going on the list. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is one of my favourite books and, although the two are very different, Cassandra has reminded me how much I want to reread that. I’ve also had Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles on the shelf for a few months after a very generous Christmas present from a sister-in-law of the entire Orange Prize 2012 shortlist. Miller is quoted on the back of my copy of Cassandra and hers is yet another approach to Achilles and the nature of passion and conflict I want to read.

The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.

I began by making several fairly reductive comments about allegory and the past and present moment. I suggested that Good Books overflow their setting, their moment, and touch on something human. It is very difficult to talk about Cassandra without wanting to go off in several different directions at once. Now that suggests there is something in the novel which we have to grasp after, something which reaches back and forward in time, and which is expressed in language which runs ahead and returns saying something we did not expect. ‘The last thing in my life will be a picture not a word.’ There is something beyond language for Cassandra: a picture, or pure experience, something will momentarily outlast the word she might use to describe it. This is part of what Wolf’s language is grasping at, and part of the reason why she cannot reach it. Perhaps. There is an awful lot I did not understand in Cassandra. I think that’s extremely promising.

Once again limb-loosing love shakes me,

bitter-sweet, untamable, a dusky animal

Sappho

Cassandra is published by Daunt Books

My thanks to Daunt Books for this review copy.

‘manipulate the pieces’ The Machine – James Smythe

the machinepic

‘They said, We can take a person and make them whole again.’

Perhaps the hardest idea to accept is that love can betray itself by its own depth of feeling. If love is given the means to try to recapture what it has lost it will most likely take the opportunity. After all, ‘Nobody dreams of a vacant shell for a husband.’ Therein lies the heart of The Machine. There are memories we don’t want anymore, memories we never wanted, memories which have changed us and not for the better. In a flat in an estate on the Isle of White in a warmed and partially flooded Britain Beth takes delivery of ‘the Machine’ and plans to reclaim the husband she lost, first to post-traumatic stress disorder, and then to the Machine itself which was supposed to bring him back by deleting the memories which had so changed him. Vic is not just comatose or suffering from dementia. He is gone. Only a body remains. In a grotesque inversion of therapy Vic spoke his life into the Machine and it removed every memory that might connect to his time as a soldier, from childhood to injury in Iran to mood swings and violence. Only this talking cure doesn’t resolve it purges. Beth’s great hope is that it can also ‘REPLENISH’, that it can put back what it took out.

Nobody knows why the brain doesn’t work like it should after the Machine’s had its way with it. This would be much easier for all involved if it was just a wipe. One doctor who worked on the project wondered if the brain hadn’t had its ability to record memories wiped. As in, it had forgotten how to remember.

From the moment the Machine’s ‘pitch-black casing’ enters Beth’s spare bedroom its power deforms its surroundings: ‘the room is suddenly darker,’ and once assembled ‘it’s like a solid lump of black metal from the front, no seams, like something carved from the world itself. It looks, she thinks, almost natural. Like rock.’ Fans whirr, vibrations fill the flat and enter Beth’s dreams along with the headaches that start soon after the Machine is delivered. The extent to which this Machine can be trusted to return Vic to Beth is a key question. Its double-nature threats Beth’s atonement. ‘She thinks about it in her flat, like some growth. Mould. Cancer. Waiting in the room, and somehow alluring, persuasive, even.’ The only certainties are the seemingly scorched and permanent bruises the ‘Crown’, a headpiece, makes on the head of its subjects. There is violence in the very process.

The Machine is occupied by three key themes: the promise, the treachery, and the inescapability of memory. Memory promises to tell us who we are, who we care about, where we have come from; and yet memories can be false, fleeting, reconstructed in hindsight, painful, and destructive; whilst, of course, being inescapable. The Machine promises and threatens: it promises to remove that memory which causes so much pain, to return you to yourself; and yet that memory is who you are, and so to remove it and the structures of which it is part is to undermine the self one sets out to save. Underlying all of this is the inescapability of memory. All experience relies on memory, be it short-term working memory – why did I come in here? What information am I manipulating in this particular task?  – or longer term encoding: speech, movement, life events, those we love. Hence Ulysses’ strange formulation ‘I am a part of all that I have met’. This line is testament not only to Ulysses’ effect on the places and people he has met, but, crucially, also to the fact that his memories, his experiences of those places are themselves filtered. Self and memory are indistinguishable. At one point Smythe quotes Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory is the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ Elsewhere in the same work Auster echoes Tennyson’s thought, ‘Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits.’

Thus the lack of speech marks in The Machine – noted by some on Twitter with immediate if transitory alarm – makes perfect sense in the context of a novel about the loss of memory. Memory differentiates one moment from the next and allows us to create and recreate our personal narratives. The lack of formal differentiation between voices is one aspect of the loss of the structure that memory provides. Furthermore, whilst being careful not to say too much, this lack of formal differentiation between each voice is thrown into sharp relief by The Machine’s ending.  Auster again, ‘It is also true that memory sometimes comes to him as a voice that speaks inside him, and it is not necessarily his own.’

Beneath its concern with memory The Machine is fundamentally a novel about trust: trust in one’s own intentions, in one’s memories, in one’s present experience, in those around us, in technology, in society, in the climate itself. Erosion both geological and psychological looms large. Smythe’s Britain is a fearful one. The population cannot trust the sea not to rise up and sweep them all away as it has in the novel’s recent past. Beth is afraid of those on her estate, especially the groups of youths – and one boy in particular – who shout and scream abuse on the streets and beaches of the island. The potential for tragedy is clear. It’s grim, violent, and full of tension. A world in which the government felt the need to make diazepam (Valium) available over the counter.

There’s something wrong with me, to have done what I have done.

In style The Machine is much closer to Smythe’s most recent novel The Explorer than to his second, The Testimony. There are noticeable continuities of theme and phrasing. He certainly isn’t becoming any more cheerful. The prose is direct and unadorned, relentless and personal, especially in the passages where Beth has to take care of Vic’s soiled and uncooperative body or where abuse and intimidation surround her. In my review of The Explorer I wrote that

what I like most about Smythe’s writing is its intimacy and deceptive ease. Complex narrative and emotional ideas are conveyed in a manner apparently free of all artifice as layers of repression are peeled back. This is harder than it looks. Smythe achieves a seemingly unmediated flow of thought and sensation as tender and raw as anything I have read this year. Neither diffident nor ostentatious, the writing is controlled to within an inch of its life…

This is all still the case, but I think that Smythe’s writing in The Machine is more controlled, refusing to rush through the heat, the pain of Vic’s treatments, Beth’s gradually dissolving life, the violence, fear, and the seemingly inevitable and very moving conclusion. This world is in many ways more plausible than the ship-bound space of The Explorer and yet the island setting restricts the characters and the reader in a recognisable way. (See Christopher Priest’s recent review for some thoughts about plausibility in The Explorer). Beth’s trips to London feel similar to Cormac’s space walks: an escape into vastness from which she has to return. If The Testimony explored human responses and interactions by placing a large number of characters in a disorientating and uncanny situation, Smythe’s later novels explore the human in a more concentrated way by restricting their characters either physically (in a spaceship) or psychologically: Beth’s love for her husband, her desperation for him to return, and her belief that this is possible.

The oppressive tropical heat creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere which immediately evokes the kind of sweaty tension of David Vann, Graham Greene, and Cormac McCarthy; not to mention the coldly uncomfortable writing of the young Ian McEwan, with a nod toward Ballard’s The Drowned World in both subject matter and psychology. Smythe has not reached those heights yet, but that is the direction in which his voice is heading. The heat also has the effect of simultaneously evoking both a hazy past and a threatened future, hot oppressive summers and a warmed dystopia. The collapse of that simple timeline parallels and intensifies the collapse of identity that the Machine’s manipulations can cause. As the fans whirr in the background, this heat also suggests an overclocked world, a world which has been made to do and be too much. A world in which coldness means death.

That’s what happens. That flash-rush of coldness envelops.

Smythe is improving with each book he writes, the voice becoming simultaneously more distilled and yet more complex. His preoccupation with time and memory and the interest in relationships that continue after loss continues. The weight of his prose is increasing. I felt The Machine had depths that were missing from The Explorer, more psychological plausibility throughout; because the subject of this novel is not the Machine. It is Beth and the way in which her love for her husband betrays them both, but not irredeemably. Not quite.

I love you, she hears him say, but then it’s gone, swallowed by the noise of the Machine and the noise of his thrashing as a new session is firmly underway, and she doesn’t know if that was the voice of him now, or from the recordings made long ago when she destroyed him.

The Machine is published today (11th April 2013) by Blue Door.

My thanks to Blue Door for this review copy.

 

 

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

crane wife

What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.

This is an opening sentence of which I am most fond. It moves from a shifting poetic register that invokes the infinite to the comic, bodily, and human. If I were to produce a one sentence review of The Crane Wife then this would probably do the job. That I’m going to say a bit more means either that I am being rather self-indulgent or that one sentence rarely does justice to the shifting thing that is a novel. Possibly, a bit of both.

Lives are assemblages of crude elements which signify beyond their constituents; as are stories and just about anything else which matters. In Patrick Ness’ new novel the cripplingly kind George – the subject of the above quotation – rescues an injured crane in the dead cold of a winter night (after having answered the call of his bladder, of course). The next day he meets the mysterious and calming Kumiko when she enters his printing shop. Together they produce art that dazzles: George’s crude cutouts from second-hand books and Kumiko’s remarkable compositions of feathers. They shouldn’t work, but they do. You can probably see where this is heading. You are probably both right and wrong.

A misanthropic, misunderstood, miserable daughter with a Gallic ex-husband and a son she adores; her unpleasant friends, one of whom ends every sentence with that damned upward inflection I recognise from every second undergraduate I meet; and a supporting cast of George’s ex-wife, her new husband, a Turkish shop assistant, and several art dealers: all contrive to mix together anger and loneliness and a simultaneous love and despair for George’s kindness. Each is sketched convincingly – for the most part – without pretension or artifice. Ness has the knack of making one care about his characters by making them very recognisably human, each sharing a fault we suspect ourselves of possessing. (Except maybe the kindness – I really don’t think I’m guilty of that one).

 She is born a breath of cloud

The novel is interspersed with a legend Kumiko tells in 32 tiles of feather and paper. I really liked this legend, told in a more mythic register. A story of passion, destruction, hatred, love, forgiveness, the creation and destruction of the world. It invades dreams, it punctures the novel and resists reduction. Implicit in The Crane Wife is an insistence that differences are constructive and stories polysemous. Ness’ stories exist simultaneously vibrating slightly alongside one another, not jostling for position so much as offering as many meanings as one can handle, and steadfastly refusing to be reduced to any one narrative or signification. At each moment of life a different story might be the one we need, as long as the others are not rejected outright.

It is quite possible that the relentless good-heartedness of The Crane Wife might be wearing to some. When each character has their epiphany, they are really rather similar. Beneath it all they might actually be good people after all. The sentiment is hard to question, but I should have liked some more difference with which to construct my reading of the novel. Although there is a rather enjoyable Twitter joke at one point, so, much like last week’s Dr Who, I can’t complain too much.

Did it matter? George thought perhaps it did, and not in terms of finding the truth or of any hope of discovering what really happened at any given moment. There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.

 The Crane Wife is published  on 4th April 2013 by Canongate.

My thanks to Canongate for this review copy.

‘suspended dust’ Plainsong – Kent Haruf

plainsong-978033039314006

Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian Church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air

Kent Haruf’s simple and unadorned epigraph announces the kind of book that one is about to read. Plainsong – vocal music that expresses and explores desolation, joy, creation, and death as a form of celebration, memorial, and call to prayer and contemplation. It is no accident this novel is a song that points to both the internal and the external, to the immediate and the transcendent, in the manner of the Colorado plains stretching into the distance.

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was coming up.

Haruf’s apparently simple set of interlocking stories of the residents of Holt, Colorado set up resonances and symmetries that manage to comprehend the whole of life. Harmonies creep in whilst Haruf maintains the same prose voice. Two young brothers, Ike and Bobby Guthrie, lose a mother to depression and marital breakdown; two old farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron gain a daughter of sorts; young and pregnant, Victoria Roubideaux loses a mother but gains something else. Birth and death – human and animal – echo another across the pages. Life continues. There are few fireworks. Haruf’s writing is so restrained and so precise in its characterisation of the town and the plains that they become luminous.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of  the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

Haruf’s transparent prose manages to remain completely immediate. It approaches a kind of inverted sublime in the sense of space he achieves in so domestic a story. Haruf eschews commas and the decorative wherever possible. Nor are there any speech marks. The effect is to remove a filter of subjectivity, to reduce the mind-dependence of his narration to a minimum such that the characters, their thoughts, and environment provide the framework and substance of the novel. When the prose does become more exuberant that tone is an implicit or explicit aspect of the character’s experience rather than the narrator’s.

 They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

I reckon it’s decided to hold off, Raymond said. It don’t appear like it wants to snow anymore.

It’s too cold to snow, Harold said. To dry, too.

It might snow tonight, Raymond said. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s not going to snow, Harold said. Look at the sky over there.

That’s what I’m looking at, Raymond said.

The McPherons are a heart-warming creation: irascible, inseparable, isolated, and farm-hardened; yet honest, kind, and unsophisticated in their good intentions. Harold and Raymond are both roughly experienced and yet innocent. They require initiation into certain mysteries and ways of being even as old men. Likewise, Ike and Bobby Guthrie are thrown into the harshness and injustice of life as they encounter sex, death, and persecution between paper-rounds.

                 I guess he’s going to die, Bobby said.

Who is?

Your horse. I guess he’s going to die today.

No he isn’t. Eat your breakfast.

I already ate my breakfast.

Well eat some more.

As I read Plainsong I was occasionally reminded of the unflinching realism of Evan Connell’s Mrs Bridge which is in many ways a very different novel. However, whilst Connell’s writing is intentionally claustrophobic and anguished, Haruf’s realism is capacious, generous, and tender. It is hard not to be reminded of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and, more recently, Kitamura. However, like Connell, their compression is shot through with unease and sweat whereas Haruf’s speaks more to the sentiment expressed in Robert Walser’s A Little Ramble: ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.’

Whilst never romantic, there are nonetheless times when the subject matter of Plainsong avoids the sentimental by a mere whisker, but it is the tone of the writing which consistently resists a lapse into the saccharine, and thus becomes all the more true for its simple and honest depiction. The effect is hypnotic and beautiful and deceptively simple: this is a carefully balanced and crystalline novel, its symmetries and spaces apparently effortless. Plainsong was followed by Eventide which follows the same characters. I will read that this week. Haruf’s latest novel Benediction returns to Holt and will be published in the UK by Picador on 11th April.

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

‘There is always a story’ The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

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The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with William Fiennes at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.

When Aleksandar Hemon took up an offer to spend a few months as a Writer-In-Residence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York it is unlikely that he expected one of his lasting memories would be the smallness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s feet; and yet it is entirely characteristic of the man that he should take such a detail and spin it out into a reflection on the supremely important but infinitely frustrating search for a common language and framework for thinking about the world that goes on at the United Nations. It is one of those places where no matter how small each country gets its chance to speak about the world, even if some voices echo more than others.

It is fitting that Hemon should find his way to the UN. He grew up in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, now Bosnia-Herzegovina, drinking, smoking, writing, broadcasting on student radio, and, on one notable and vilified occasion, attending a Nazi-themed cocktail party. Hemon wrote and read, walking the streets and ‘Fancying myself a street-savvy columnist’. When war broke out in 1992 the 27-year old Hemon was visiting Chicago under the auspices of the American Cultural Institute. He sought asylum in the city and his family and dog escaped to Canada the following year. In the first piece of The Book of My Lives Hemon writes that ‘Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances.’ One of Hemon’s concerns both in print and in person is the essentially relational nature of identity and selfhood. At the heart of the NCLA discussion was Hemon’s developing awareness of the network of lives he had failed to fully appreciate in Sarajevo, but without which he felt completely adrift in Chicago. This is clear in the book: ‘In Sarajevo, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher,; the streets where people recognised you, the space that identified you; the landmarks of your life…’ Stripped of his kafana, one of the vital tasks of building a new life in the city was finding a network of lives and spaces in which to position himself: ‘I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.’ Finding a group with which to play football became a key concern.

Often, when I got too excited and demanded, shall we say, that other players stay in their position and play for the team, someone would tell me, Relax, it’s just exercise…, whereupon I’d suggest that if they couldn’t play the way the game’s supposed to be played, they should fuck themselves and go and run on a fucking treadmill.

One of those Hemon plays with is Lido, a 75-year old Florentine art restorer who still believes himself to be in peak physical condition. ‘Even the slowest ball was capable of outrunning him, so when the teams were picked he was never counted as a player—we just tolerated his being on the pitch, safe in the assumption that he would have little impact.’ Lido tells a furious story of the failed restoration of the Sistine Chapel and the disastrous removal of its patina. ‘What they didn’t understand, Lido said, was that the patina is the essential part of the fresco, that the world the Almighty created on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was incomplete until the mortar fully absorbed the paint, until the inchoate universe turned a little darker. It wasn’t a sunny day when God created the world, Lido thundered; devoid of the patina it was all worth shit.’

Hemon has spoken of his dislike for the ‘memoir-craze’; of confession and atonement in the public gaze. Memoir, he argues, should be a matter of bearing witness to others: the ‘I’ should be a method of moving outward into the world and the lives of others. Writing occupies this strange position of reciprocity between the internal and external: ‘Writing was another way to organize my interiority so that I could retreat into it and populate it with words.’ Telling stories of oneself and of others and refusing to admit of any distinguishing principle beyond the place of one’s birth is one way of resisting the hateful and hate-filled ethnic cleansers of the former Yugoslavia. Hence the importance of the search for a common language at the UN, despite its crushing slowness; and hence the young Hemon’s reaction against the hermetic literature of Serbian nationalism. Hemon is quick to acknowledge that one can’t truly know another – any more, perhaps, than one can know oneself – but one can and should imaginatively occupy other people, because that is how, in fiction or otherwise, a common network is created.

Whoever created Lido ought to be satisfied: Lido was one of those rare humans who achieved completion. The rest of us had no choice but to roll in the dirt, get weather-beaten, and accumulate a patina, hoping to earn our right to simply, unconditionally be. And when I passed the ball to Lido that day—fully aware that it was going to be miskicked and wasted—I had the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, a sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise and relaxation.

And like that Hemon grasps the fragments of a life, pulls them together, and, with a twist, makes a connection with a broader humanity. That he has done so in a language he didn’t really speak until he was 27 makes the achievement all the more remarkable and frequently elicits comparisons with Nabokov and Conrad. It is this ability to move toward an epiphanic moment, to observe and capture the stories of those he meets, grew up with, brought into the world, that marks Hemon out as truly remarkable. Lido died, Hemon told us at the NCLA, in Mexico in circumstances which have never quite been explained, after having followed his latest youthful bride to her small hometown. Hemon’s piece stands as a memorial to a remarkable man, capturing his essence in a few quick brushstrokes.

The Book of My Lives is a largely a collection of revised pieces published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian, and Playboy amongst others. Its constitution from such pieces is wholly appropriate, for this collection of glimpses of and reflections on the meaning of family, emigration, integration, conflict, and the two cities he has called home, is the production of a man understanding people and places through the composition of each piece, through story. A straightforward narrative memoir would not do justice to the fragmented nest of lives Hemon has lived and been essentially connected to. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t do justice to any of us.

 On July 15, 2010, my wife, Teri, and I took our younger daughter, Isabel, for her regular medical checkup. She was nine months old and appeared to be in perfect health.

As William Fiennes pointed out in his discussion with Hemon, The Book of My Lives begins with the birth of a daughter and sister, and ends with the death of a daughter and sister. Of the devastating  final essay ‘The Aquarium’, first published in The New Yorker in 2011, little can be said but that, having read it before, I was dreading returning to it. The parents I know found it near impossible to read. Hemon’s honesty and power in expressing the worst nightmare of any parent is extraordinary both in itself and in the capacity he finds to transform this piece of writing into a reflection on his elder daughter Ella’s acquisition of language and the concomitant expansion of her narrative horizon. Ella uses language in order to understand, she uses characters to process emotions and ideas that demand expression. Hemon does the same – he’s just been at it longer. In doing so he is as insightful, lyrical, philosophical, funny, and angry as anyone I have read. The Book of My Lives is simply remarkable. You absolutely have to read it. In the meantime, I’ll make start on his fiction.

 …when asked “What are you?” I am often tempted to answer proudly: “I’m a writer.” Yet I seldom do, because it is not only pretentiously silly but also inaccurate—I feel I am a writer only at the time of writing. So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.

I’d like to say it might be too early to tell.

  The Book of My Lives is published by Picador on 14th March.

 My thanks to Picador for this review copy.